Stewart Should Learn from Jonathan Swift

Jon Stewart

Jon Stewart

A recent review of the Daily Show’s Jon Stewart in Salon has me rethinking a comment I made a while back about how the satirist is our Jonathan Swift (perhaps in combination with Stephen Colbert). Elias Isquith takes exception to Stewart’s contention that he isn’t political but is “just a comedian.” This in the context of Stewart fending off political criticism from the left over his attacks on the Obama administration for its health care rollout.

Isquith isn’t arguing that the left-leaning Stewart should hold back from skewering the left. It’s just that he shouldn’t ingenuously pretend that his skewering doesn’t have an impact, retreating to a safe comic distance when people complain. Swift, by contrast, wanted his satire to have an impact and was fully prepared to take the political heat.

Here’s Isquith on Stewart:

He protests that he’s “just” a comedian, and mocks the idea of anyone taking him or “The Daily Show” too seriously. He’ll even devote a whole segment of his show to how silly it is for others in the media to see him as an influential voice (a segment that the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple rightly called a gigantic humble-brag), which may indeed be lazy on other journalists’ part, but is hardly absurd.

True, it goes way, way too far to say that Jon Stewart’s barbs have an appreciable impact on public opinion polling. That’s an analysis that wildly oversimplifies the case. It deserves to be ridiculed. But it’s not unreasonable to say that Jon Stewart is a player in the political opinion arena, one with more influence than most, and that what he and his staff decide to cover on “The Daily Show” both reflects and shapes the political conversation of the moment.

So when Stewart devotes a show to excoriating the Obama administration over the botched unveiling of Obamacare, it matters. It means something. It tells us that, regardless of what conservatives might be saying, the Obama administration is indeed messing up. “The Daily Show” doesn’t mock success. It targets incompetence, hypocrisy, dysfunction. Rather than being pro-Democrat or pro-Republican, those are its biases. And Stewart’s audience knows this; it’s the foundation of his influence.

Swift differs from Stewart in two ways. First, he is less interested in towering above the fray than in making a difference in the world. In Modest Proposal, for instance, he wants to protect the Irish against British exploitation.

Second, Swift attacks those who think that they can stand aloof from politics.

For instance, he goes after the Gulliver of Book IV, who is so horrified by the behavior of humans that he withdraws himself entirely from their orbit, conversing only with his horses after he is exiled from the land of the Houyhnhnms. It is true that, in so doing, Gulliver escapes all human taint. But Swift’s point is that those who think they can insulate themselves from the gritty affairs of the world forfeit their humanity. In trying to be like the austere and perfect horses, they see nothing but failure.

This also means that they fail to recognize when humans are trying to do good in the world. For instance, Gulliver never acknowledges Pedro de Mendez, the Portuguese sea captain who goes out of his way to rescue him from the sea and put him back on his feet.

Gulliver has become a cynical satirist by the end of the book, guilty of the sin of pride. In other words, Swift the satirist is satirizing the myopia of satirists.

Stewart isn’t cynical, but if he thinks that comedy provides an impenetrable safe house, then he too is guilty of a kind of smugness. I used to think that Stewart was Swiftian in the way that he sometimes makes fun of himself. Now, however, I wonder whether this isn’t more of a defensive gesture, a high and mighty way of appearing less high and mighty. (As in, “I’m so secure in my superiority that I can make fun of my appearing to be superior.”)

When applied to Obamacare, we see the limitations of Stewart’s satire. Yes, there were deep problems with the rollout and the president was wrong in saying that no one would lose his or her health insurance. I agree with Isquith that these are fair game for satiric attack. But if Stewart cannot then acknowledge the millions who are, for the first time, receiving insurance (or good insurance), then important perspective has been lost. Don’t overlook the good deeds of Pedro is Mendez just because it’s more delicious to attack bureaucratic yahoos.

Let’s not forget that there’s a major battle being fought in America right now, that there are millions in red states who aren’t getting Medicaid that the law calls for and that millions more would remain uninsured (or badly insured) if the GOP succeeded in defunding the ACA. Swift wouldn’t have avoided such a battle on the grounds that he was “just a comedian.”

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